Saturday, 13 November 2010

Razzle Dazzle 'em

Ah the tranquility of it all, traveling by train through unspoiled countryside when there was always 'a man' to help you with your bags at the end of your journey, not the cattle lorry mentality of 'stack em high sell them cheap' of modern travel. I can't quite see Michael O'Leary commissioning an artist to romanticise the 5.30 flight to Magaluf, ah life seems to have been so much more easier in the 1930's but of course I'm idealising it just a bit!

Well you can blame that on this man Norman Wilkinson, I recently discovered the work he carried out for the London Midland and Scottish Railway. One of his posters caught my eye (the subject was a place near where I grew up), and after a few clicks on the net I found out a little bit more about the man behind the posters.

I have always admired this kind of illustration the broad sweeps of flat colour with enough detail to make it seem real but enough stylisation to make it feel like a waking dream. Around the 1930s lot's of Royal Academy artists were commissioned by the rail networks to make the idea of travel more appealing to the masses, Wilkinson was amongst them. His illustration career began in 1898, when his work was first accepted by the Illustrated London News, for which he then continued to work for many years, as well as for the Illustrated Mail. Throughout his life, he was a prolific poster artist, designing numerous posters for the London and North Western Railway, and the London Midland and Scottish Railway. It was mostly because of his fascination with the sea that he traveled extensively to such locations as Spain, Germany, Italy, United States, Canada, and Brazil and it was the sea, or more precisely the boats that sailed on them that presented him with the opportunity to work on a larger scale and in an altogether different style.

During WW1, Wilkinson served in the Royal Navy Reserves, he was attached to a submarine patrol. While serving he was astounded by the success rate of German U-Boats and wondered how he could change this. He struck upon a way to aid the war effort through his painting. A boat could not be hid at sea from a submarine but he had the idea of making it more difficult for the submarines to make a successful strike, by using paint. The camouflage paint wasn't to make it blend into the sea but to make it harder for submarines to judge the distance to the ship therefore making it harder to judge when to fire their torpedoes.

Tests were carried out and Wilkinson was made head of a team of model makers and artists charged with creating geometric "dazzle" patterns. These were then in turn tested and then sent to other artists who applied the designs to ships at the docks.
I find it difficult to see the silhouette of this ship, sitting comfortably at home and nevermind in the wilds of the North Atlantic at night.
I was aware of these ships but I never realised that Norman Wilkinson was the man who struck upon the idea. I love the lateral thinking that brought this to life and that opened the door to modern camouflage patterns. It has echos of tribal war paint and of danger markings from the animal kingdom, but most of all I love the contrast between this and his earlier work for the railway companies, they seem like worlds apart but I suppose that was the affect of two world wars.

Proposed paint schemes for Naval ships, 1918
A print by Edward Wadsworth who was one of the artists that were charged  with applying the designs created by Wilkinson and his team. Wadsworth prints and painting inspired Saville's sleeve design for OMD's forth album Dazzle Ships
Dazzle Ships by OMD released in 1983, sleeve designed by Peter Saville

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